Friday, March 20, 2009

Brush With Genius

I made it to the IMAX Dome of Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry to see "Van Gogh: Brush with Genius," and as promised, here are some thoughts. If this film is playing in your area and you have any interest in van Gogh at all: SEE IT. It is a visual feast. The Imax format immerses you in the paintings; many times the filmmaker gives you the closest details of pictures, so you see individual brushstrokes blown up to thousands of times their actual size. Interspersed with the paintings themselves is superb footage of Auvers-sur-Oise, the asylum at Saint-Remy and its environs (the olive groves), and Arles, together with footage shot in Paris and Amsterdam. In Paris, we see inside the Musée d'Orsay, and in Amsterdam, inside the Van Gogh Museum. Noteworthy in the latter is a look inside The Vaults where the letters and drawings are stored, safe beneath the museum.

The accompanying commentary is fairly lightweight, but it works: the filmmakers knew you'd be so busy gawking at the visuals that you wouldn't be listening to anything dense or detailed. It also makes the movie more 'kid-friendly.' An actor portraying Vincent provides first-person narration as voiceover, and onscreen we follow two 'characters' of a van Gogh researcher and a filmmaker (the latter is one of the actual filmmakers) around Vincent's world. The voiceover commentary gives the basic timeline of Vincent's life, explains some key events, and gives "Vincent's" thoughts on his fame today. Two moments in particular made me smile -- in the first, "Ellen" the researcher is carefully examining a letter fragment in which all the words are crossed out, trying to work out what Vincent had originally written. Those well versed in van Gogh studies will recognize the letter fragment as one recently deciphered by VGM curators and published in the 2000 issue of Van Gogh Museum Journal. "Vincent" complains about the researcher trying to read what he had carefully made sure no one would ever read and proclaims "Who cares?" Kind of an in-joke, it seemed to me, since the film was made in collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum.

The second made-me-smile moment was a shout-out to my girl Rachel (pronounced correctly in the film as Rah-shell). "I liked Rachel," Vincent says in voiceover. "She was close to me. She had a warm heart." I wanted to clap.

Another interesting tidbit about the film concerns the choices of the paintings. I found it striking that an entire van Gogh documentary did not once show Starry Night or Sunflowers. The filmmakers were strategic in choosing a broad range of work that demonstrates the diversity of Vincent's subject matter. They did not stick to the paintings everyone knows. The most 'famous' works to make an appearance are the Orsay version of the Bedroom at Arles and the Cafe Terrace at Night. Paintings and drawings depicted are nearly all from the collections of the VGM, the Kröller-Müller Museum, and the Orsay, which partly explains the absence of Starry Night, but even so, the filmmakers clearly made an effort to expose moviegoers to artworks they might not have seen before.

"Van Gogh: Brush With Genius" recently won a major European award for large-screen format films, and deservedly so. SEE IT!

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